the kicker

What Rohde Didn’t Say

October 22, 2009

With, as Megan noted, the publication of the final pieces of David Rohde’s first person retelling of his seven-month captivity with the Taliban, we’ve probably heard all that we are going to hear from The New York Times on the episode.

As the paper has said all along, there are some aspects of their work to release Rohde that they won’t discuss for fear, they say, of giving away elements of a playbook that could save future kidnap victims.

Given that, it’s interesting to read Matthew Cole’s piece looking at the paper’s hush-hush efforts, which was published by New York magazine early in the summer, just after Rohde’s escape.

After reading through Rohde’s gripping first person series and his Q&A with readers, it’s clear that Cole got at least one detail wrong: his assertion that “Rohde and his two companions never made it to see” Abu Tayeb, the Taliban commander whom Rohde was trying to interview at the time of the kidnapping. That’s because, in the story’s oddest twist, a disguised Abu Tayeb was in fact Rohde’s kidnapper.

But the rest of Cole’s reporting holds up pretty well against the seemingly extremely carefully worded portions of Rohde’s epilogue where he addresses two sticky questions: whether or not the Times paid a ransom for his release, or bribed the guards to look the other way in the event he attempted escape.

Rohde denies that the Times or his family paid any ransom. Left unaddressed is whether or not the paper offered to pay ransom, as Cole reported, only to be rebuffed, potentially in the hostage takers’ hopes of getting a bigger payday. (Hopes that could have been stoked by Rohde’s suggestion to his captors that they might have been able to obtain millions.)

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Even more ambiguous in Rohde’s accounting is whether or not the Times arranged for payments to his guards. Here’s how Cole addressed the question in his June article:

A source directly involved with Rohde’s negotiations says that a network was set up to pay bribes to guards in the various Haqqani compounds where Rohde and Ludin were being held, including the one from which they escaped. The goal was to grease the wheel for a future rescue attempt, and it may have enabled their getaway. It is unclear whether the Times had any knowledge of the bribery network. “David doesn’t know what happened with the guards,” the source says. “It’s a very nice idea that he escaped.”

Rhode raises the guard-bribing claim in the same sentence as the potential ransom-paying. And in the next sentence he brisky denies that the Times or his family paid a ransom but says nothing about bribes. He leaves that aside until two paragraphs later, where he offers this vagueness:

Security consultants who worked on our case said cash was paid to Taliban members who said they knew our whereabouts. But the consultants said they were never able to identify or establish contact with the guards who were living with us.

So the Times admits it made payments to the Taliban. But Rhode doesn’t say what those payments were for, or whether or not they, as Cole suggests, made their way via a “network” to the guards watching him in Miram Shah. To say that the consultants were never able to “identify or establish contact” with the guards doesn’t necessarily mean that the Times’s money never got to them.

I’ll close by quoting Cole’s prescient kicker, written some five months ago.

Rohde will likely tell his own story, eventually, in the paper. But in the end, no one may know the full story of what happened on his behalf.

Sounds about right.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.